Sick Transit

The NYC subway-bus strike and the slow death of the American pension system

The fight over transit union pensions in New York is likely to end up as yet another step in the slow death of the American pension system. Killing off the pension is the linchpin to assuring additional profitability—paid for by the worker.

Of course, the Enron debacle was supposed to end all that. Every politician from George W. Bush on down offered condolences to the employees who got screwed and promised to reform the 401(k) pension system so as to protect them. Nothing happened. There are no reforms. The 401(k) remains not a pension but a sales pitch for the mutual fund business. The worker makes a contribution, which along with differing amounts put up by the employer then goes straight to the mutual fund to gamble in the market. Instead of being guaranteed a steady pension income to death, the owner of a 401(k) is told to face the bracing winds of the free market. Nothing is guaranteed. The trading in these funds is meant to be regulated by the federal government through the Securities and Exchange Commission. In fact, there is little or no regulation and never has been.

While the old-time fixed pension is disappearing from the private sector, it still clings to life in the public sector. (Currently, more than 40 percent of employees who work for private companies are not covered by pensions, according to a new report by the Center for American Progress.) So, the trick in places like New York is to shift the financial burden from rich taxpayers onto the workers. And the most appealing way to achieve this goal is to gut the pension system. The contract proposal that led to the transit workers' strike is a step along that road.

It’s about the pension
photo: Steven Sunshine
It’s about the pension

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    The 401(k) system is a can of worms with the worker seeking a steady retirement income, but getting ripped off in a maze of fees. When an employee actually quits the workforce, he or she will usually buy an annuity from an insurance company, which will then pay out a steady amount of cash throughout the year. But purchase of an annuity can cost 5 percent of the total 401(k), a big hunk of the investment—yet another benefit to another unregulated arm of the finance industry.

    For workers forced to switch to a 401(k), the economic atmosphere is one of great uncertainty.

    "The needs to save for retirement are rising sharply, while the ability to save for retirement is declining," notes Christian Weller, the pension expert at the Center for American Progress. "Social Security benefits are already cut and employers are reducing access to retiree health care benefits at a time when health care prices are rising sharply. At the same time, pension coverage is declining, employers are cutting back on their contributions to 401(k)'s, and the risk exposure in 401(k)'s is growing. That is, the ability of people to save for retirement is going down, exactly when they need to save more for retirement.

    "It is unlikely that this will be reversed any time soon since public policy is moving in the wrong direction in all aspects. Tax policy is skewed in favor of those who already save the most.

    "Regulation has made it harder for employers to predict their contributions to pension plans. And many risks of 401(k) plans that became apparent after Enron still exist and have in some cases been exacerbated."


    Before 9-11, Bush lost his spy cap

    Bush says he had to spy on the citizenry to ferret out hidden terrorists laying plans with forces abroad to strike us again. This doesn't make much sense, because Bush had been ignoring numerous warnings before 9-11. The question is, why didn't he take action to block Al Qaeda before—not after—the attacks?

    Consider what the president and his subordinates ought to have known before the attack. This list borrows from compiler Paul Thompson's exhaustive 9/11 Timeline, based on news reports from around the world.

    Early September 2001: The National Security Agency intercepts phone calls from Abu Zubaida, Osama bin Laden's chief of operations, to the U.S. (The content and times are still undisclosed.) Australian intelligence picks up a call from Islamic radical Mamdouh Habib from Pakistan saying something big is about to happen in the U.S. He was subsequently arrested and incarcerated at Guantánamo but let go because captors decided he had no foreknowledge of events. An Australian intelligence official claimed Habib said everyone in Kandahar and Al Qaeda camps knew something was about to happen and said, "There was a buzz."

    September 9, 2001: Bin Laden phones his stepmother to say big news will come in two days and she won't be hearing from him for a while.

    September 10, 2001: The NSA intercepts at least two Arabic messages. One says, "The match is about to begin." It's later translated as "the match begins tomorrow." Another says, "Tomorrow is zero hour." They were sent between someone in Saudi Arabia and someone in Afghanistan, and the NSA claims they were not translated until September 12.

    On the same day, electronic intercepts connected to U.S. undercover agents who supposedly had infiltrated Al Qaeda cells in the U.S. hear messages such as "watch the news" and "tomorrow will be a great day for us." When asked months later why these messages did not lead to boosted security or warnings on September 11, officials explained them away as "needles in a haystack." These reports seem odd because the Congressional Joint Inquiry found that U.S. intelligence was not able to penetrate Al Qaeda.

    With reports of these intercepts flying around, along with numerous warnings from foreign intelligence sources—all reported in the U.S. or foreign press—Bush had ample advance warning an attack was in the offing. In fact, according to 9-11 Commission staff reports, the intelligence community literally bombarded the FAA with more than 50 warnings of an Al Qaeda action before 9-11. With all this information at hand, it is hard to believe that the president could not have obtained special Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA) warrants, especially in light of the fact the court seldom turns down such requests.

    Why then did the administration avoid FISA and launch its secret spy program, unless it was, as former NSA director Michael Hayden says, to "detect" something, which means Bush set up a dragnet or fishing expedition to investigate citizens just in case he found something that might lead to a case. The Pentagon's illegal secret Able Danger project ought to throw light on the extent to which U.S. intelligence was tracking Al Qaeda hijackers within the U.S. Officials of Able Danger are supposed to testify before the House, but it remains to be seen whether the administration will follow through with its promise to let them speak. If they are allowed to talk, they will only help to build a case against both Bill Clinton and Bush for illegal domestic spying.

    In any event it should not have been too difficult for Bush to get around the prohibitions. For example, through international intelligence-sharing pacts, the U.S. could get the British to spy on American citizens inside the U.S. and then make that information accessible to the U.S. through exchange agreements. In his book Iraq Confidential, Scott Ritter, the former U.N. weapons investigator, relates how, when he was frozen out of information on weapons of mass destruction, he got the British to obtain the information needed from the CIA and pass it on to him.

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